I will come to that point in a minute.
The parents want clarification. First, they want to know whether it is permissible for headteachers to partner with parents to decide how the nine protected characteristics are imparted to pupils, bearing in mind that parents cannot have any veto over which characteristics are taught. Secondly, they would like to know whether the nine protected characteristics have to be taught all together, or whether they can be spread out and imparted to pupils throughout their time in primary school, taking into account at what age the head and/or parents consider it most age-appropriate for each protected characteristic to be imparted to the children.
I ask those questions because many primary heads are looking at what has happened at the two schools where controversy has arisen and do not want to be accused of discrimination, which is of course illegal, in the way they deal with the Equality Act and the nine protected characteristics. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister, because this will affect the relationships education provision that comes in in 2020 and that can be introduced in September 2019, which is much more specific about the terms “consultation” and “age appropriateness”.
I have no opinion on the ages at which primary school children should be introduced to the provisions of the nine protected characteristics. For example, I attended a recent meeting held by the headteachers’ union here in the Commons, in Committee Room 9. A headteacher—he may have been a deputy head—from Manchester argued forcibly that the whole “age appropriate” concept should be scrapped completely, and that children aged two should be introduced to the provisions of the protected characteristics. If the parents of the children involved are happy with that, who am I to say it should not happen? But parents, who in international law have the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children, have to be partners with schools in the making of such decisions.
Likewise, I have no prescribed views about what teaching materials should be used. I believe that schools and parents should make the decision after proper consultation, which is what is currently happening in most schools. In respect of the question asked by my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle from a sedentary position earlier, yes, I have now read most of the books that my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty has given to me. Some of them are very good—“The Little Mermaid” is particularly good, and I have just got a copy for my grandchild—but my Muslim constituents would like to talk through some of the other books with the school to understand what the concepts are. They cannot talk it through with the school if the school will not have consultation.
I regret the controversies that have arisen around the two schools in Birmingham. I believe they could have been avoided if the schools had taught the provisions of the Equality Act in different ways and taken the parents’ concerns into account. For my part, I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused to any person of whatever sexual orientation by anything I have said or written. In particular, I apologise unreservedly to members of the LGBT community in Birmingham and throughout the country for anything I may have said or written that has caused offence to them. I assure you, Mr Speaker, that it most certainly was not intended.